There are some big-ticket items that must be addressed during the lame duck legislative session, including adult-use marijuana, business tax incentive programs, and water infrastructure.
But one social justice measure must also be prioritized: the restoration of voting rights for nearly 100,000 New Jerseyans who are shackled by a regressive and racist law that dates back 175 years.
This is one area in which our state needs a fresh blast of democracy, if only to keep up with citadels of liberalism such as Montana, Utah, and Indiana. Those are just three of the 19 states that allow felons on parole and on probation to vote, and our failure to join them can only be attributed to lawmakers who apparently fear that it’s a political risk to restore a constitutional right.
So we enforce an obscene level of disenfranchisement, and forbid 15,000 parolees and 58,000 people on probation from voting.
These are folks who have already served their time, or people who have never even been in jail. They live in our neighborhood, pay taxes, host barbecues, drive our school buses, coach Little League, sit in the next pew, and we expect them to uphold the social contract.
But if they haven’t completed parole or probation, this law — a vestige of Jim Crow, designed to prevent blacks from voting for “crimes” such as loitering and moral turpitude — says these people cannot be trusted to participate in democracy.
This is nonsensical, and most of the nation is catching on: By a whopping 63-20 margin, Americans believe voting rights for those on probation and parole should be restored. Even in Kentucky, where felons are disfranchised for life, Andy Beshear called for the restoration of voting rights for 140,000 nonviolent felons via executive order, and it didn’t stop the commonwealth from electing him governor Tuesday.
It is an article of faith: “You’re back in society, and you’re trying to get back on your feet and live a full life again,” Gov. Phil Murphy reasoned. “Yet you don’t have a voice in the direction of the community? To me, that’s not right.”
There are bills in each house that will restore felon voting rights, and they deserve hearings before the session ends on Jan. 14.
Speaker Craig Coughlin won’t acknowledge whether the bill will be posted in the lower house, but the primary sponsors of both versions — Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic) and Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) — confirm that they have assurances that it will be addressed.
A potential tripwire, however, exists in the sponsor’s insistence that the franchise also be restored for those presently incarcerated. Only Maine and Vermont allow prison inmates to vote, but the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice argues that if we’re serious about criminal justice reform, we should acknowledge that voting lowers recidivism and facilitates reentry.
But that provision is more controversial, and the governor himself avoids mention of inmates. Restoring voting rights for those on parole and probation is part of being restored into society. Barring the vote for those behind bars is not excessive, particularly for violent felons, and losing your electoral voice is not an unreasonable consequence of losing your freedom.
Either way, this bill must move, or Gov. Murphy must no longer tolerate the foot-dragging by skittish legislative leaders.
This archaic law is a national embarrassment, and he can reform it with an executive order, just as New York governor Andrew Cuomo did last year. It’s time to give our forgotten neighbors back their voices.
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